Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Video: "Are we ready for neo-evolution" by Harvey Fineberg

by Salman Hameed

We will be facing increasing number of complicated ethical questions as we learn more about the human genome and develop the ability to manipulate it. The possibilities of biology today are both awesome and frightening. I was thinking if physicists felt like this in the early 20th century, when discoveries on both large and small scales were promising improvements in the human quality of life as well as bringing the threat of complete annihilation.

It is therefore great to see this talk by medical ethicist, Harvey Fineberg, on the promise and pitfalls of manipulation at genetic scales. I agree with him  that given an opportunity, people will indeed seek improvements in the physical abilities. Writing in Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking had made an interesting observation about Star Trek - The Next Generation (ST-TNG). He was a fan of ST-TNG, and even appeared in one of the episodes playing poker with Data, Newton, and Einstein in holodeck (you can see the scene here). However, he said that the most unbelievable thing about ST-TNG was not its depiction of aliens. Instead, what was most unbelievable was that humans looked like today's humans in the 24th century! His main point was that whether we like it or not, given the ability, humans will modify themselves. May be we will all be 10 feet tall. But more likely, we have no clue what physical ability will help us more in the next couple of 100 years. After all, not many futurists predicted internet and the way it has transformed our society. Nevertheless, it is valuable to think about the way we use this power of biology - and we can perhaps learn some lessons from 20th century physics. [By the way, this is one place where creationists are on the safe ground. Since they don't have a clue about the basics of biology, their (lack of) understanding can lead to neither any positive or negative results - or any results in general. :) ]

In the mean time, here is the TED talk by Harvey Fineberg (about 20 minutes long):

Friday, April 29, 2011

Yes, Herzog's documentaries are indeed better than most...

by Salman Hameed

It is always a treat to watch a Herzog film. He is fascinated and intrigued by humans. I absolutely loved Encounters at the End of the World and I'm looking forward to Cave of Forgotten Dreams - in 3D! It is about 32000 year old paintings found in Chauvet cave in southern France. Unfortunately, it is not playing anywhere nearby - not even in Boston. C'mon Massachusetts!

In any case, here is a fantastic Fresh Air interview with Herzog. Couple of things to note. Around 20 minutes in, he talks about 3D films. He makes an interesting comment that our brain takes more time and effort to process 3D images. It is therefore a mistake to make short-edits in these films. Instead, you should have longer takes and let people absorb the 3D information. Second, he also says that our brain - in real life - in not fully processing 3D information. That is, the brain takes short cuts, and uses other information to give is 3D information. But in most 3D films, we are forced to constantly deal with visual 3D - and that is the reason we feel tired after watching those films (Though I was tired after Avatar because of its multi-dimensional inanity).

But the best part of the interview is when he talks about Fred Astaire in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Huh! And this is the reason Herzog's documentaries are better than most:
And when you look at the cave and certain panels, there's evidence of some fires on the ground. They're not for cooking. They were used for illumination. You have to step in front of these fires to look at the images, and when you move, you must see your own shadow. And immediately, Fred Astaire comes to mind — who did something 32,000 years later which is essentially what we can imagine for early Paleolithic people."
And so he added a sequence from Swing Time (1936), where Fred Astaire dances with his shadows. How cool is this! And this is a spectacular sequence (though black-face is a serious problem here). Here it is:

By the way, I'm not a big fan of musicals - but it would be great to have Fred Astaire style movies again. In undergraduate I took a class on Hollywood musicals and saw numerous Fred Astaire (and Ginger Rogers) films - and I have to say that most of them were very good.

Back to the 21st century. I'm looking forward to watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In the mean time, listen to the full interview here (the last couple of minutes are spent on the religious aspect of the cave). 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A short story from Nature: "Test of Faith"

by Salman Hameed

Nature has been running a short scienece-related fictional story segment at the end of each issue. Last week's story deals with faith - well at least faith in science. Here is the beginning of Test of Faith by Brian P. Frank:

I must not fail. Sixth-year graduate student Vikram Singh was sweating profusely, not just from the heat of the nearby bonfire or the glowing bed of coals spread before him. Around him, the faculty members and students of the Chemical Engineering Department clapped and chanted the ritual songs while Professor Markson leapt about in a frenzy as she led the undergraduates, her long grey hair released from its customary tight bun. Her face was streaked with ceremonial paint in red and black, the school colours. The old bat looked utterly terrifying, worse than she had during his candidacy exams. Vikram stood barefoot and wore only the traditional loincloth.
All I have to do is walk across the coals. My ancestors in India did this for hundreds of years simply through the power of their belief. So why not me?
Of course, most of India was under water now, and he had grown up a Greenhouse refugee in Kansas. But he had climbed out of the camps, found scholarships to get himself here to the Institute and onward for graduate work until only one final barrier remained. But if he couldn't pass this test, it would all be for nothing. The noise grew louder, Professor Markson leaping higher until Vikram was sure she was going to give herself a coronary. It suddenly stopped as Professor Li, Vikram's thesis adviser, strode into the firelight and began the ritual speech:
“We gather here tonight to test the faith of Vikram Singh. Since the time of George the Second” — there was a chorus of enthusiastic boos and hisses from the crowd — “we have known that it is not enough for scientists and engineers to choose cold detachment. Those were dark days of research suppressed, of scientists persecuted for speaking truths that could have saved us all. And what is the result? Global disaster so vast that we still live with the consequences. It must not happen again.” 
Read the full story here.
By the way, you can read more about the science of firewalking here. This is actually a great way to explain concepts of conduction and heat capacity. You should not try it - but if you do want to impress people (and perhaps start your own religion), please use coal! :)

Moon's craters from Lahore

by Salman Hameed 

There is a steady growth of astronomy in Pakistan (see Astronomy catching on in Pakistan). It is fantastic to see that today's Lunar Photo of the Day (LPOD) was taken by Umair Asim from Lahore (see his own website here). Congrats to Umair!

Here is the picture and a short blurb from LPOD:

This is a nice view of a lunar region that never fails to delight. But what I like about Umair's work, besides that he brings another nation into the fold of LPOD contributors, is what he did next. He labeled the image to provide more information about the the features depicted. He did the labeling on an iPad using the very convenient app Photo Measures (which really doesn't make measurements, but records them). Such images could be very useful in a lecture about the Moon or as posters on classroom walls. But even without sharing, labeling causes us to think more personally about lunar features we normally see without any sense of scale. Comparison with a Google Maps image shows that Umair's bustling town of Lahore would fit inside the rough floor of 44 km wide Maupertuis. And the distance from Prom. Laplace to Prom. Heraclides is about the same as from Lahore to the snow-covered front ranges of the Himalayas. Why not compare one of your images with meaningful distances near your home?
More LPOD here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Muslim Women Scholars in the Golden Age

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
When I read Salman’s recent post in which he mentioned the famous Huff-Saliba debate, I was reminded of the lecture Saliba gave here at my university a few years ago as part of his promotion tour for his book “Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance”.
One of the first questions he was asked was why there are no women among the hundreds of great Muslim scientists of the Golden Age. He replied that there were a few, but that they are rarely given credit, for various socio-historical reasons. He referred to one particular lady who was great at making astrolabes. He did not mention her name, but I think he was referring to Fatima Al-Majritiya, the daughter of Maslama Al-Majriti (d. 1008 or 1007 CE), who was one of the great Muslim astronomers of medieval Andalus (Muslim Spain).
Don’t bother googling for her; you won’t find anything. In fact, I cannot even remember where I found her name. I’ve just searched a few of my books on the history of science in Islam but couldn’t find her. I’ll post a note if/when I do. I had seen or heard mention of her expertise in constructing astrolabes, and I was very happy when one day I finally found her actual name.
Unfortunately, I cannot think of any other female Muslim scientist or even philosopher. When I am asked about this state of affairs, I usually first state that most pre-modern civilizations rarely produced any female thinker or scientist. If you check out the website “Women Scientists in History”, which is presumably devoted to this topic, you will find only two figures from before 1600 CE: the famous Hypatia (370-415) and Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who is profiled as the “first woman scientist whose writings still exist… received an education in a convent… became the abbess (leader) of her abbey.”

I should say, however, that this website is quite clearly incomplete, because when I checked the list of names (only 26) of women scientists since 1600, the following great figures were not listed: Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848); Annie Jump Cannon (1863 – 1941); Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889: “the first professional woman astronomer in the United States”); Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868 – 1921); Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900 – 1979); Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906 – 1972: Nobel Prize winner in Physics), and of course many others… A much better website on the subject is “Famous Women Scientists”, which lists 61 names.

But I digress, so let me go back to Muslim women. If we turn to Wikipedia, we find a long entry on “Women in Science”, and it too proceeds chronologically. One gets quite encouraged by finding a number of women mentioned, by name, even before Hypatia. But then (surprise!), the document jumps to Medieval Europe – not a word on Muslim women, or to the whole Arab-Islamic period/culture/civilization.
Now, in his book titled “Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek science came to Europe through the Islamic world”, John Freely briefly says that in Cordoba (perhaps the highest and brightest point reached in the Islamic civilization), women did participate in the cultural and scientific life; he wrote: “The Islamic schools of the time in Cordoba employed scores of women copyists, as did the city’s book market. More highly educated women worked as teachers and librarians, and a few even practiced medicine and law.”
I also very often hear Muslim speakers state that there have in fact been great women scholars in the history of Islam! To defend this claim, they say that Aisha (the famous young wife of Prophet Muhammad) was a well-recognized scholar of Islam in her time, because: a) she related hundreds of hadiths; b) many people used to come and ask for her opinion on one Islamic issue or another. Likewise, preachers tend to relate stories about great scholars of Islam (I think Al-Shafi`i is one) having gone to learn from knowledgeable ladies. But one should be careful not to conflate “knowledge” and “scholarship”.
So, perhaps with such bright exceptions as Cordoba, and in the hope of finding names and stories of Arab/Muslim women thinkers (perhaps in some unexplored manuscripts), my initial reply that pre-modern societies rarely gave educational chances, let alone encouragement, to women to pursue knowledge and excellence, that reply remains only a tentative explanation.
But I think that one should not be afraid to look at one’s society and history with critical eyes and point out any of its shortcomings. One must do it objectively, neither exaggerating, nor covering up or finding unjustifiable excuses for it.
I was reminded of this when I found the following passage in John Freely’s afore-mentioned book; he wrote: “Ibn Rushd was the first writer in any language [emphasis added] to complain about discrimination against women, which he felt was one of the most serious problems in Muslim society.” Freely then quotes Ibn Rushd (unfortunately without giving a reference):
“Our society allows no scope for the development of women’s talent. They seem to be destined exclusively to childbirth and the care of children, and this state of servility has destroyed their capacity for larger matters. It is thus that we see no women endowed with moral virtues, they live their lives like vegetables, devoting themselves to their husbands. From this stems the misery that pervades our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot procure the necessities of life by their own labors.”
First, I must say that I was very surprised by this quote, not because it would not represent Ibn Rushd’s views (I think it very much would), but because it’s hard to reconcile it with our glorious image of Cordoba and Seville in Ibn Rushd’s time. Indeed, this does not fit with the Freely statement I quoted above, unless things varied much in Cordoba from one period to another. I do suspect, however, that what Ibn Rushd described was probably the prevailing situation for women.
Today, as for yesterday, the situation may vary quite a bit from one country to another, and certainly things have evolved greatly in recent times. I will try to look at the present status of Muslim women in science in my next post. In the meantime, if anyone can bring any additional information about Muslim women and scholarship in the classical era (Golden Age), that would be very useful.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Usama Hasan interview with New Scientist

by Salman Hameed

We have had several posts on the issue of Usama Hasan and the threats to him because of his support for biological evolution (see here for a collection of links). He was recently interviews by New Scientist, and you can read his views directly here:
What did you say about evolution that upset people in your community?
My trouble started three years ago when I wrote an article saying that we needed to move beyond the simplistic idea held by many Muslims that God created Adam from clay and then breathed life into him. This literal interpretation of the Koran is still the dominant position. I was brought up a creationist and was a fundamentalist for many years, but I came to the conclusion that evolution is entirely compatible with the Koran and that alternative interpretations of the creation story that account for evolution are valid.
What happened recently to stir things up?
Things escalated in December when a visiting influential Saudi scholar, Salir al-Sadlan, was asked whether someone who believed in evolution was fit to lead prayers, and he said no. An online petition against me was set up, saying I should be removed from al-Tawhid mosque, where I have been a prayer leader for 25 years. So in January I held a lecture at the mosque to clarify my position on why evolution does not undermine the scriptures. The lecture was disrupted by a small gang of fanatics and I had to abandon it.
How has this affected your everyday life?
It has been quite serious. At the lecture a leaflet was handed out saying that anybody believing in evolution or who propagates it must be killed. Knowing some of the people behind this, in the small fanatical fringe of the British Muslim community, I know they believe that literally. They are pro-violence. So it was very worrying, especially as I have young children. I have had to take out extra security at home, which I guess will stay for the rest of my life.
And then he says this: 
How common is the creationist position among Muslims?
It is the default position. Most of us are taught that evolution is wrong, unproven and a blasphemy. A lot of people enjoy science programmes on TV such as those by David Attenborough, but they tend to say he's an unbeliever so we can't trust him.
This is a very strong statement but it may only be reflective of the situation in UK. We have been finding a wide range of views amongst Muslim physicians and medical students - at least for non-human evolution. I think the question is too vague here - and the answer way too specific. The "default" position of Muslims, in my experience from several Muslim countries, is quite complex, and did not see many people jumping on to the blasphemy bandwagon (at least not as yet). 

And here are his final thoughts on the matter:
Recently you retracted your views because of the outrage they caused. Could you explain?
My retraction was saying that I misjudged how to go about explaining these things. Sooner or later someone will have to address the issue of evolution - it's a no-go area, especially with the clerics - but I'm abandoning my attempt to reconcile it with the Koran until things settle down. I am not willing to risk my life over this issue.
With hindsight I probably went too far in stating a position so explicitly; a better option may have been to simply open up the debate. I have been heartened by the support I have had. Many people have said that while they didn't actually agree with me, I should have the right to discuss the matter.
What is the best way to raise the issue of evolution among Muslims?
We need more Muslim scientists who are known to be devout to speak out about their views. I have had a lot of support from Muslim scientists, but they wouldn't speak out because they knew the reaction they were likely to get. They were scared.
Here is the link to the full interview.

And here are related posts on Usama Hasan on Irtiqa:

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Video: Woody Allen on our existence in this universe

by Salman Hameed

I just saw the preview of Woody Allen's new movie, Midnight in Paris. While his recent films have varied much in terms of quality, nevertheless, I look forward to them. So for Saturday video, you get some existentialism from Woody Allen. The Brooklyn is not expanding is perhaps one my favorite lines form a movie. From Annie Hall:

and here is a monologue from Hannah and her Sisters.

"Nation of Islam" as a UFO religion

by Salman Hameed

This week's New Yorker has a review of a new book on Malcolm X. The book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, seems to be a even-handed treatment of this fascinating figure. Unfortunately, the author of the book died a few days before the release of the book.

But this is not why I'm writing this post. Instead, the review in the New Yorker reminded me of some of the UFO-related beliefs of Nation of Islam. Now, I first encountered Nation back in early 1990s in my undergraduate days at Stony Brook. There was of course much confusion about the name Islam in their title. After talking to some of their members, it was quickly obvious that when they say Islam, they are talking about something completely different. Not a different sect, or a splinter group. Rather, it was a non-overlapping category.

I did vaguely remember some UFO component to the Nation of Islam. I'm currently teaching a class on Aliens, and this coming week, we will be talking about UFO and abduction related religions and spiritualities. In particular we are looking the Aetherius Society and the Unarius Academy of Science. The following week we'll get to Raelians. All of these religions are are a product of the age of science. Since science dominates every sphere of life, it is little surprise that they see super-powereful aliens as gods. Fascinatingly, there are also books that find the mention of UFOs in the Old and New Testaments, and in the Qur'an. It is the same drive. Bringing in old religions up to date with the paranormal phenomenon of the scientific age (I know, I know, there are a lot of contradictions in the previous sentence).

But then we have the Nation of Islam. It is also a religion predominantly of the 50s and 60s (though it started a bit earlier) - the height of the cold war, racial tensions in the US, and the UFO hype (these are not all equal in their hype). I find it very interesting that it used the UFO motif for racial construction of its narrative. This is all the more interesting, as most of the UFO religions are predominantly white. At the same time, the most widely cited abduction case, that of Betty and Barney Hill of New Hampshire, involved an inter-racial couple, and they did have a conversation with aliens about race relations in the US. This "encounter" took place in 1961. I had not thought about race and UFO religions before, but the New Yorker article about Malcolm X got me thinking in this direction.

Here is the bit about the origin story of Nation of Islam from the New Yorker:
If you are a believer (and very few are these days), the origins of the Nation of Islam stretch back thousands of years, to a time when blacks, the “original people,” were assaulted by a mutant white race created by an evil “Big Head” scientist named Yacub. The whites achieved dominion over the earth and blacks “went to sleep,” mentally and spiritually. The purpose of the Nation of Islam was to rouse the black man from his slumber. (Armed spaceships come into it, too.) Such were the teachings of Wallace D. Fard, an ex-con, silk salesman, and eccentric storefront preacher who turned up in a Detroit ghetto around 1930. Fard also had more earthly advice. He told his followers to avoid alcohol, to work hard and save money, to own their own businesses, and to regain a sense of the nobility of their race. His Nation of Islam represented a cultish offshoot of a venerable American movement, black nationalism.
And perhaps also an offshoot UFO religions. Read the full article here. Here is a speech by Louis Farrakhan from 2010 that includes a discussion of the the UFO Mothership and also references to the Bible (especially the Wheel of Ezekiel. It even has schematics of the Mothership (about 4 minutes in) about a mile long and is supposed to have contained 1500 bomber planes. He is a captivating speaker and this is nice demonstration of how religious views gets meshed in with the idea of UFOs. By the way, he even manages to L. Ron Hubbard - though not for his Church for Scientology. In any case, all of this is academically fascinating!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Even the history of blood transfusion can be exciting!

by Salman Hameed

Here is a review of a book on history of blood transfusion experiments: Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution (you may need a subscription to access the full article). It is amazing how much science we take for granted. I think it is safe to say that I'm happy that I'm living in the 21st century and not in any past century (though the 24th century promises to be quite amazing). At least we are now sure about the major human blood groups and their compatibilities. But the path to finding this was paved with a lot of unhappy transfusion victims - in particular those getting blood from animals. From the review in Nature:
In Blood Work, medical historian Holly Tucker looks at the beginnings of transfusion in the seventeenth century. Adding material from her own archival research to the standard historical account, she fleshes out the start of physiological experimentation and examines historical attitudes to blood. The result is a page-turning insight into early scientific attitudes and disputes over priority.
In the 1660s, she explains, the fellows of the newly established Royal Society of London began to transfer blood from one animal to another. This was part of investigations into the heart, blood, circulation and respiration, following William Harvey's seminal description of the circulatory system in 1628. The British group included Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and Richard Lower, and their experiments were communicated throughout Europe by the secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, and published in the society's Philosophical Transactions.
But then here is a fascinating angle that even brings in religion into the debate:
Meanwhile, the French Academy of Sciences opposed transfusion, so the main innovator in France was a marginal but ambitious physician, Jean-Baptiste Denis. He, too, began with animal-to-animal work, but quickly moved on to transferring blood between animals and humans. At stake was more than whether foreign blood was curative — people believed that the characteristics of the chosen animal might alter human personality.
The docile lamb was the donor species most often used, with its religious overtones (Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God). “The blood is the life,” the Bible tells us, and seventeenth-century natural philosophers endowed that phrase with its full theological significance. Consequently, these were not simply experiments of curiosity; they were aimed at uncovering deeper meanings. That said, one of Denis's early subjects, a butcher, apparently took away his exsanguinated donor to roast.
Ha! Okay there is even a clergy connection:
The early human transfusion patients in both countries were generally treated for what was perceived to be lunacy or other psychiatric disabilities. The first English subject was an eccentric clergyman who liked to converse in Latin. He survived an infusion of about a third of a litre of lamb's blood. Although it did not cure his language preference, he was less agitated afterwards. So the procedure was thought to hold enough promise to be repeated a couple of weeks later.
Hopes were dashed when Denis transfused an agitated servant, Antoine Mauroy, with some calf's blood. The first two transfusions seemed to calm him. A third, insisted on by Mauroy's wife, was abandoned when the patient had a series of seizures. The next morning, Mauroy was dead, and was taken away for burial before Denis could perform an autopsy.
Apropos of the earlier post about Toby Huff's new book on the scientific revolution, this book also places the rivalry between France and England in the context of the scientific revolution:
Tucker uses the competition between the French and English scientific societies as a window onto international rivalries during the scientific revolution. Claims over priority were at stake — being the first to successfully carry out a procedure mattered a great deal. In Paris, there was the additional tension between the Academy of Sciences, sanctioned by King Louis XIV, and the private groups that it effectively replaced. The fact that the French and English were at war during the 1660s adds spice to the story, as do London's 1665 plague outbreak and the Great Fire in 1666, which disrupted the early meetings of the Royal Society.
Read the full review here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lecture Video: John R. Hale - Mysteries of the Delphic Oracle

by Salman Hameed

A few weeks ago we had a fantastic lecture by John R. Hale on "Mysteries of the Delphic Oracle: Ancient Religion, Modern Science". This was part of the Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion. He is a fantastic speaker! This lecture is also a good example of how to structure a talk: a nice beginning, build up the story, and then bring everything together in the end.

Here is the video of the lecture: Mysteries of the Delphic Oracle: Ancient Religion, Modern Science (Q&A and the abstract for the talk below that):

The Delphic Oracle: Ancient Religion, Modern Science by John R. Hale from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

Here is the Q&A:

Q&A with John R. Hale from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

The Delphic Oracle was the most influential religious site in the ancient Greek world.  Speaking from a tripod in a crypt under the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the priestess called the Pythia acted as a medium for the god, and spoke the divine prophecies while in a state of trance or possession.  The testimony of eye-witnesses linked the oracle's prophetic power to geological features in the rock under the temple: a mysterious chasm or cleft, a natural vapor or gaseous emission, and a sacred spring.  Although long doubted by modern scholars, these ancient traditions have recently been put to the test by an interdisciplinary team of researchers -- a geologist, an archaeologist, a chemist, and a toxocologist -- with surprising results.

Dr. John R. Hale received his Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Cambridge in 1979. He has conducted fieldwork in England, Scandinavia, Portugal, Greece and the Ohio River Valley, and is currently director of liberal studies at the University of Louisville, where he is studying such diverse subjects as ancient ships and naval warfare, and the geological origins of the Delphic Oracle. Professor Hale's work has been published in Scientific American, Antiquity, The Classical Bulletin, and the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

Please check out videos of earlier lectures at our Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion website.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Bold Editorial and Journal from IMASE

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
A few days ago, someone sent me a copy of the latest issue of Constellations, the journal produced by the International Muslim Association of Scientists and Engineers (IMASE). I must admit that I had never heard of either the association or its journal. The copy was sent to me because it contains several interesting items: a bold editorial regarding the Usama Hasan affair; an interesting two-page article titled ‘On Evolution’; a commentary titled ‘Is GMF Shari‘ah Compliant?’; an article titled ‘The Futility of Fatwas’; and a number of other interesting pieces.
I’ll get to those articles, or at least to some of them, further down, but let me first introduce IMASE, since I doubt that many readers of Irtiqa will be familiar with it.
In the ‘About Us’ section of the IMASE website, we can read the following statements, which give a general idea of the aims and scope of this association:
Our overarching aim is to develop and raise the level of Islamic, and scientific, thought and practice amongst people, especially scientists and engineers.
This will involve the proactive partnership of a range of communities, including students, researchers, religious scholars, thinkers, policy makers, development practitioners and technologists, to work towards delivering ideas and results.
Among the functions of our organisation is a virtual forum that will enable members to exchange ideas and disseminate technical information throughout the world. One of our long-term projects is to become a portal for those interested in connecting with contemporary works on science and technology.
In its ‘IMASE Initiatives’ section, one can find: a) an Islam and Science Forum, described as aiming “to nurture, encourage and employ attitudes and practices of an Islamic character towards science… to research and deliver coherent and realistic seminars, discussions and studies on matters related to science, technology, society and development”; b) an Environment initiative; c) a Professional Development initiative; and others.
An interesting product of IMASE is its ‘Constellations’ quarterly journal, of which the fifth issue (first of the second year) has just been released. Issues are structured as follows (according to the descriptions given by IMASE): Articles (descriptions of current original research or material), Review Articles and Papers (not original research but results of other works), Trends and Current Opinion (presenting an accurate and unbiased view of current issues in a scientific and technical manner), Journal Papers (original works in the areas of concern for IMASE). All issues can be downloaded in pdf format, the latest one, 97 pages in total, can be found here.

I would now like to comment a bit on the bold pieces addressing the Evolution controversy that recently surrounded Dr. Usama Hasan and his ordeal (see here for links to previous Irtiqa posts on this affair).
In its editorial, titled ‘IMASE Statement on Dr Usama Hasan, Evolution and Masjid Tawhid’, signed by “The IMASE Team”, one can read the following:
This is a statement in support of Dr Usama Hasan's right to safety, dignity and expression. IMASE raises this matter to protect the wellbeing of a Muslim scientist and contribute to a just and collective response to undignified and arrogant behaviour within our community. …
We reject the malicious campaigns of takfir (declaration of apostasy) levelled against Usama…
Events at the mosque on 22nd January were a sad reminder of how degraded the Ummah (Muslim community) has become. Remedial action is our joint responsibility.
IMASE calls on:
·     Muslims to resist and overcome those who declare Muslims with whom they disagree to be apostates.
·     Muslim scholars of all disciplines and persuasions to seriously and practically grapple with narrow mindedness and thuggishness in our communities.
·     Those with responsibility in Islamic institutions to exercise their leadership and take firm and just action against malicious, rowdy and gangster-like elements within and surrounding their organisations.
I found this editorial worthy of note for the following reasons: a) it speaks very clearly in support of Dr. Hasan and gives strong reasons for it (dignity and freedom of expression); b) it does not shy away from identifying the communal ills reflected in that sorry affair; c) it calls upon Islamic institutions to exercise the responsibility that falls upon them in addressing these serious situations.
Following the editorial, a short article was appropriately dealing with Evolution. It was written by Abu Tariq, from Melbourne, Australia, who tells us first that he used to be an atheist, that he converted to Islam 25 years ago, and has had the chance to study Biology and to work “in a scientific field which provided solid evidence in support of evolution”.
Abu Tariq’s short article was interesting in more than one way. First, he relates his own encounter with the Islam-Evolution issue, telling us that initially not only did he find nothing in the Qur’an to disturb his acceptance of Evolution, he encountered only one anti-evolution book (by a Pakistani-trained biology teacher who had “absorbed the nonsense promulgated as science by Christian creationists”), then discovered all the great works of the Golden-Age Muslim scholars, many of whom had described evolutionary trends in nature. But, in recent years, “the poison has taken hold”, as he put it: “We see the Christian creationist nonsense recycled by the likes of Harun Yahya, considered as scientific truth by Muslims… A generation of Muslims is having its minds closed to scientific understanding by this.”
Wow! How often does one read such statements in a Muslim publication?
Abu Tariq goes on to justify his assessment (poison, ignorance, etc.); he relates cases of professors and students who faced ordeals because of their evolutionary convictions, ordeals reaching up to torture! He concludes his article with the following statement:
A victory by the closed-minded thugs who have threatened Dr Usama would sentence all of us to a new Dark Age and leave us looking backwards […] and think of what might have been. They cannot be allowed to succeed.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

An absolutely riveting production of Frankenstein!

by Salman Hameed

On Saturday, I had a chance to see the Danny Boyle (yes, of 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire fame) production of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The play is being performed on National Theater Live in London, but a number of movie theaters are showing it live (I saw at Amherst Cinema). If your town is showing it, please go and see it. It is absolutely phenomenal!

This production is based on a play by Nick Read and is presented from the perspective of the Creature, who gets more and more erudite as the play progresses. Frankenstein was written in 1818, and perhaps the first fully realized science fiction novel. But it is a timeless piece of literature (you can read the book here). We can see it today in light of all the developments in genetics and synthetic life experiments.

The play by Nick Read features some phenomenal acting - both by the person playing Victor Frankenstein and the creature. In a bold creative experiment, the two main actors exchange their roles in the second version of the play. The acting is so amazing, that I cannot imagine the guy playing the creature in a different role. So I may end up seeing the play again with the swapped roles for the two leading actors (the two version alternate from night to night).

Much of the play centers on issues that are of concern to Irtiqa (i.e. of science, religion, and ethics). After all, Frankenstein is playing God by creating "man" with the help of electricity. It is fascinating that the concept of electricity was still relatively new at the time of Mary Shelley - but here she is writing about the potential of using it as a spark for life. The creature compares himself to Adam. He even gets a chance to ask his creator the reason for his creation - and laments that "I did not asked to be born". This is the creation story for the age of science!

The novel is set in backdrop of RomanticismWe see the creature initially as pure and noble, but it is the civilization that corrupts him. To leave no doubt about this, there is a fantastic scene when the creature quotes from Milton's Paradise Lost. Indeed there are parallels between Victor Frankenstein and the satan in Paradise Lost. The play is indeed a cautionary tale about science and modernity, and a caution against science being in the wrong hands.

Pride is the culprit.

But the play is also about the need for love and the fear of being alone. The desire for a community. Or at least a companion. Now that he was born, all that the creature wanted from Victor Frankenstein - his creator - was a companion.

Everything in this production of Frankenstein is meticulous. Stage design, writing, acting - all of these are of very high calibre. This, in fact, was a more emotionally moving experience than watching the very good movie version of Jane Eyre - which is in theaters right now (check it out too).

Go see Frankenstein. I think I will be watching the second version on May 7th.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

Toby Huff's New Book on the Scientific Revolution

by Salman Hameed

Modern world is shaped by modern science. So it is little wonder that scientific revolution of the 17tth/18th centuries is a topic of huge importance for historians of science. That the revolution took place in Europe places focus on the structure of the European society and the prevalent culture, as well as questions about the places where this revolution in thinking did not take place, such as in Muslim areas or in China.

A few years ago, two scholars went at each other on this very issue. The occasion was the publication of The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West by sociologist Toby Huff. It is an excellent book and among other things he points to key structural differences between European universities and the Muslim madrassas of the same era. For example, for various reasons the curriculum in universities got standardized, whereas madrassas maintained learning focused on individual scholars, and therefore often lost continuity after the death of the scholar.

Then historian George Saliba wrote a review of Huff''s book. The review started with some praise but quickly became quite critical of Huff's ideas. Well, Huff then wrote a response to the review, which in itself was quite critical of Saliba's views. Saliba then wrote a response to the response - and by then, the gloves were completely off.

This is classic academic sparring! I actually give my students this exchange and we usually have a fascinating class discussion on the topic. In case you are wondering, last time the class was split - with half supporting Saliba and the other half Huff.

Saliba has his own strong views about the reasons why scientific revolution did not take place in the Muslim world. He thinks that it is not that the sciences declined in the Muslim world (and in China), but rather that Europe outpaced others. One of the prime reasons for this was the influx of money from the "discovery" of the new world, and provided funds for the establishment of scientific societies. The concept of patents - so disliked in the Muslim world - also allowed innovation to spread in Europe (this is a post renaissance development).

In any case, George Saliba presented some of these ideas in Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. I actually like this book too - especially the last chapter, where he talks about the causes for the scientific revolution in Europe (you can also see these views on our Science & Religion Lecture: Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science) . I think, truth lies somewhere in between these two ideas: Yes, there were external factors (such as huge money influx from the new world) that helped Europe, but then there were also some internal factors (legal frameworks, space for expression, etc) that ended up being advantageous over the long run.

Now Toby Huff has developed his ideas further in a new book, Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective. It looks very interesting and I have just ordered it. However, here is a review of it by Saleem H. Ali in the journal Science. The overall review is quite positive but it is too bad that Saleem did not mention Saliba and his ideas at all. In any case, here are some snippets from the review:
Why have some human societies achieved greater scientific accomplishments than others? In Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, Toby Huff takes a cultural perspective to explain Western dominance in the sciences. Distinguishing engineering prowess (such as the construction of hydrological systems) from scientific inquiry, he argues that a “curiosity deficit” in the Orient led to scientific stagnation there.

Huff (a sociologist who has turned to the history of science) begins by laying out evidence for Western ascendance in the sciences during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Showing little patience for those who romanticize oriental equivalence in scientific achievement, he convincingly argues how key scientific discoveries (from the laws of planetary motion to anatomical function) were largely products of occidental science. He further challenges the notion of collective learning through colonialism by noting that much of the West's colonial ventures in the East began much later (in the 19th century). Focusing on Chinese and Islamic societies, he argues that most consequential knowledge transfer that occurred was in fact from West to East, particularly by Jesuits in China.

A case study of the invention of the telescope provides the book's core example of Western scientific superiority. Using rigorous historical analysis, Huff carefully traces the knowledge of optics that led to this instrument and the subsequent transfers of the science and telescopes to China, India, and the Ottoman Empire. He offers ample allusions to primary texts and illustrations alongside critical appraisals of secondary commentaries. Huff supplements this core case with considerations of the invention of the microscope, the development of microbiology, and the evolution of early physics (particularly pneumatics and electromagnetism). The knowledge of these discoveries, he argues, was conveyed across the Muslim and Chinese realms but led to little further innovation.  
Although Huff gives credit to notable inquisitive researchers in the Islamic tradition (such as Ibn al-Haytham in optics and Ibn Bajja in the science of motion), he takes the inability of such stalwarts to create a larger scientific enterprise in their societies as indicating a systemic cultural problem. The original scientific achievements within the Islamic tradition largely occurred between the 10th and 12th centuries, when there was a willingness for collective learning and a transmission of Greek texts to Western Europe. However, the commendable contributions of the “Arab masters” in areas such as trigonometry were confined. Like earlier Greek discoveries, Muslim contributions to science atrophied and did not lead to historically transformative inventions. Huff also convincingly dismisses specific claims of Arab scientific influence on the West, such as the impact of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi on Copernicus. 
Saleem quite correctly sees Max Weber's influence on Huff: 
One senses a strong undercurrent of Protestant exceptionalism throughout Huff's narrative, in keeping with his earlier work and admiration for Max Weber (1). He claims that religious impediments to science were less substantial in Europe than in other parts of the world and that episodes, such as Galileo's conflicts with the Church, have been overplayed by historians. Despite many tensions, Christian Europe had a greater capacity to accept scientific enterprise. Referring to Martin Luther's Wittenberg campaign, Huff comments that “it is extremely difficult to imagine an Islamic scholar” of the 16th or 17th century “posting such a challenge on the door of the Great Mosque in Damascus.” In this context, he might also have discussed the role played by clergy such as Gregor Mendel and Thomas Malthus in scientific discovery.
Although Christianity had its set of religious taboos, Huff argues that these were surmounted through a higher literacy rate and the rise of news publications. Perhaps adaptation was also inhibited by greater structural inertia in Islam and Chinese religious traditions. For example, Muslim scientists, despite their potential and intellect for innovation, were prevented from achieving breakthroughs in anatomy because of Islamic prohibitions on dissection and an “aversion to artistic representation of the human body.”                   
Read the full article here (you may need subscription for full access). But I can't wait to see a review of this book by George Saliba. Or even better: a new book by Saliba on scientific revolution.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

And 2012 doomsday crap reaches Pakistan...

by Salman Hameed

It is unfortunate that bad science gets transferred across continents so easily. ARY News, a major news channel in Pakistan is now producing documentaries that promote superstition (for example bad things can happen to women who go out with uncovered or open hair...) and conspiracy theories (freemasons, illuminati, and other mixtures from Dan Brown and National Treasure). Now they also have one on doomsday scenarios associated with 2012. Too bad - instead of this crap, they did not think of producing a quality science program in Urdu.

I have post on this issue at the USC Trans/Missions blog on Media, Culture, Religion, and Society. Here is the beginning of the post, and you can read the full post there:

Doomsday in 2012: A Bad Idea Goes Global
Next year is going to be an ordeal for astronomers. We regularly field (or at least endure) questions and claims about astrology, alien abductions, UFOs, crop-circles and beings from other dimensions. But we're bracing ourselves for a bumper crop of pseudoscience over the course of 2012, the end point of the cycle charted by one of the Mesoamerican calendars. Which means...well, probably nothing much.

But if you turn to the History Channel or the Discovery Channel or the National Geographic Channel--or link to one of the thousands of 2012-related posts on the Internet--you'll find that destruction will visit us next year as a consequence of: a) Earth's collision with a black hole, b) extreme solar flares, c) an asteroid strike, d) sudden climate change due to a shift in the planet's magnetic poles, e) our alignment with the black hole at the center our galaxy, or f) a collision or a near-miss with Planet X, sometimes also referred to as Nibiru. If you have a more optimistic personality, you may believe we are headed for a consciousness-transformation event in 2012. Or perhaps all of the above. 

I'm already irked by the propagation of super-bad science on the Discovery and National Geographic channels, but I was even more dismayed last month when I was in Pakistan, where there has been an explosion in the number of cable channels. There are countless talk-show programs on more than ten 24-hour news channels. There are eight music channels and three devoted to fashion and lifestyle. Then there are six 24-hour religious channels, along with three that focus on food and cooking! This is not counting at least ten other stations that only run soaps (see the list of Pakistani cable stations here).

But it seems science is largely missing from the mix. If Americans suffer from a glut of pseudoscience, Pakistanis are in the midst of a science-media famine. Or so I thought.

Just this past Sunday, I saw a locally produced documentary in Pakistan that focused on doomsday scenarios associated with 2012--but with a distinctly Pakistani twist. The program had the same tone, music and pacing of the 2012-related content produced in the U.S., except that it featured Pakistani experts. [Here is a segment that talks about the Mayan calendar. The documentary is in Urdu, but I think you get the sense that it is trying to convey]. 
Read rest of the post here.

And in case, you are interested, here is the segment about 2012, and below that is the one that talks about women's hair and other superstitions:

and here is the one on the dangers of going out with uncovered hair and other superstitions. Please also note the infusion of religion to justify some of these:

No "time travel" in China - at least on television

by Salman Hameed

And here is an example of a government going a bit looney. It seems that Chinese government has issued new guidelines that discourages plots of time travel, along with mythical stories or bizarre plots, etc etc. I would have been okay if they banned Back to the Future III - but the first two are quite decent. Ditto for Terminator. I guess it will also take out much of Star Trek and most of any form of science fiction. But I fear that even Being John Malkovich - one my favorite films from the 90's - may even get the axe because of its bizarre plot :)

Wait a minute. I saw this story on CNN. Lets make sure that they did not pick this story up from the Onion or a similar website in China.

In any case, here is CNN:
New guidelines issued on March 31 discourages plot lines that contain elements of "fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and a lack of positive thinking."
“The government says … TV dramas shouldn’t have characters that travel back in time and rewrite history. They say this goes against Chinese heritage,” reports CNN’s Eunice Yoon. “They also say that myth, superstitions and reincarnation are all questionable.”
Well, true - but did they not read any fairy tales or other fantasies while growing up? I think they have to resolve some personal issues and they are taking out their revenge on pop-culture. C'mon - at least leave sci-fi alone!

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Voodoo in New York City

by Salman Hameed

Last Sunday's NYT had an interesting article about Haitians who follow voodoo in New York city. The point was that voodoo had historically played an important role for Haitians and today it serves as an identity marker as well:
 Long misunderstood and maligned in Western popular culture, voodoo has become a spiritual anchor in New York City’s vast Haitian community and in Haitian enclaves across the country as practitioners look for comfort after the devastating earthquake in the impoverished Caribbean nation last year.
In New York, where there are roughly 300,000 people who were born in Haiti or are of Haitian descent — the largest concentration in the United States — richly painted basement voodoo temples are sprinkled around Harlem and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Mambos, or voodoo priestesses, say they can barely keep up with “demann,” or prayer requests; spiritual love recipes to lure recalcitrant lovers are the most popular. Voodoo prayer circles in which practitioners meet to commiserate have also proliferated, with a notable intensity in the months since the earthquake.
And no, voodoo, is not something sinister or otherwise. But its reputation can be a problem. While reading this article I was thinking about Scientology. I know some aspects of Scientology have serious issues, but in most cases, it has a hard time escaping its sinister reputation (more on Scientology later this week). But back to the voodoo in NYC:
 In voodoo, a healing-based religion that was brought to Haiti by slaves from Western and Central Africa, followers commune with one God — Gran Met — by worshiping potent and sometimes temperamental lwas, or spirits, believed to hold sway over love, morality, reproduction and death.
According to scholars, up to half of all Haitians practice some form of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism, which intermingled with the belief systems of enslaved West Africans when Haiti was a French colony.
Yet because the religion is often practiced furtively in basement temples, and because of its emphasis on spirits, spells and animal sacrifices, it has been stigmatized as primitive.
But scholars stress that voodoo has played a central role in Haitian history, sustaining people who have endured oppressive governments, grinding poverty and natural calamities.
Ms. Desir, a former professor in the Africana studies department at Brooklyn College, says voodoo has been vilified by Western culture going back to 1791, when a voodoo ceremony helped inspire slaves to rebel against their French colonial oppressors, sparking the Haitian Revolution.
But here is my favorite quote from the article - and it perfectly illustrates how easy it is to mix in NYC:
“I would never use voodoo to do harm or to kill a merger-and-acquisition deal,”
Ah...ancient rituals meet Wall Street. But for many, it is about cultural identity, and in this it is very different from Scientology:
For many practitioners, voodoo is a matter of cultural identity. Ms. Desir, 50, recalled that her Catholic mother had been aghast when, as a rebellious young adult living in Queens and studying anthropology at Barnard College, she also decided to study to become a mambo. “I personally don’t hide the fact that I am a voodoo priestess; it is a crown that I wear proudly,” Ms. Desir said. “My role is not to create love potions but to help reconnect with African culture.”
For Mr. Laroche, who came to New York when he was 5, voodoo is a tie to his family’s home in Port-au-Prince. He sees no contradiction between wielding an iPhone and marrying a voodoo bride. During the marriage ceremony, Mr. Laroche said he planned to celebrate his nuptials with his girlfriend, who he said had little reason to be jealous. She had already married Ogou, a virile, cigar-smoking spirit who is said to provide strength and protection.
It seems that there are some fascinatingly interesting spirits out there! But I'm curious how do they view these spirits in the natural world. Do they think of them as physical or more as a metaphoric reality - or more likely, something in the middle? And if their conception of spirit the same or different from the usual conceptions back in Haiti? A few years ago I read Tracy Kidder's Mountains beyond Mountains, and it had some fascinating stories of people combining both voodoo and modern medicine for their health purposes.

In any case, read the full article here.      
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